Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How to keep rich worldbuilding from bogging down your story: A Google+ Hangout Report

I was joined for this hangout by Glenda Pfeiffer, Liz Arroyo, Harry Markov, Lesley Smith, and Sid Schneider. It was great to get back to these live discussions, and I hope more people can join us next time! Social highlights were the presence of new visitors Lesley (from the UK) and Sid, and the new video camera which let us see Harry for the first time, all the way from Bulgaria.

The real trick with detailed worldbuilding is that very often it will take huge amounts of time to do the research and build the details of a world, but we have only the time allowed by a single reading person's attention to make it come to life for our story. This can lead to overloading a story with information and explanation, and this was the challenge we were all present to discuss.

I started the discussion with the following idea. Because, as an author, you are trying not to provide more information than a single person (the reader) can understand, one great way to approach the problem is to use a restricted point of view (either 1st person or 3rd person limited), using the character as a filter. What you give the reader to understand will therefore automatically be as much as one single person can think about at any given time, creating a microcosm of the world. Characters are allowed to have areas of uncertainty or ignorance. They are allowed to be culturally myopic, too - without implying that the author hasn't thought the world through sufficiently.

I did give my guests the caveat that I am not an expert on third person omniscient, so I wasn't going to be able to comment much on how to handle exposition in that format.

As an example of a large world focused through a single character, I gave the example of Grobal Tagaret, from my recently completed novel, For Love, For Power. As a nobleman, Tagaret has no concept of what life is like outside his own caste. He has a set of stereotypical views of what people are like (or are supposed to be like) when they come from other castes (servants, artists, merchants, etc.). He also has knowledge of certain individuals whom he knows personally, and while he doesn't treat them according to stereotype, he never really pushes his knowledge of those individuals into the kind of questioning which might lead him to conclude that perhaps members of the castes aren't all alike, or aren't quite what the stereotypes suggest. Then, as he learns more, the reader can also learn.

The idea here is to establish a character with an individual knowledge set, an idiosyncratic set of judgments, and then set up a situation of conflict and interactions that will press his buttons and make him express judgments.

I also talked about the protagonist of my short-story-in-progress, who goes by Hub Girl (an internet handle). She comes from a futuristic earth where people have the internet in their heads and are able to customize their reality by "overlaying" images from the internet on their surroundings. One important element of the worldbuilding is the idea that advertising can be used to cover up undesirable views, and in fact Hub Girl lives in a slum that is covered over by a layer of advertising (which she always sees from the underside). By putting the reader in Hub Girl's head, I can show how she customizes her reality, and how she takes for granted the advertising that covers over her home.

The other thing I recommend for rich yet concise worldbuilding is to choose unusual details. If you've done a lot of independent worldbuilding, you'll end up with far more detail than can actually fit into the story. However, a lot of that detail can be implied by mentioning one item (buildings like cliffs of glass, for example) that suggests others (a cityscape of tall modern-tech buildings). Then you can look for a detail that is both unexpected and relevant to the situation at hand. Including unusual details can win you a lot more trust than you'd expect, because readers are really good at filling in expected details. In Hub Girl's story, I have a moment where she's walking along the sidewalk and noticing everyone's shoes. One of my critique partners commented that she hadn't ever seen a story of near-future where shoes were mentioned, and she liked that I had included the detail. On the other hand, I don't just say, "and by the way, Cityfolk wear these kinds of shoes." Because Hub Girl doesn't have shoes, she feels vulnerable walking along the street where Cityfolk wear shoes that are both fancy and seemingly dangerous to her. It sets the mood, propels the action, and tells you what kind of shoes people are wearing. Here's the quote:

So many fancy shoes: stilettos jabbing, platforms thudding like hammers. If I flinched, they'd notice I got none.

Sometimes you can convey a lot about a world through the simple choice of a word. How would your character conceptualize the events and things and people around him/her? Be careful to choose a word that has judgmental connotations, or extra implications about the culture and the world around. Vagueness is not going to help you here. I was looking for a word to describe a kind of misfortune that might befall one of Hub Girl's friends (having tech stolen out of their heads), and had begun with the word "fluke" to express that it was something that didn't happen all the time. But the word said nothing about what Hub Girl thought had happened, and thus implied nothing about the dangers of the world. I thought about using "mugging" but that was also too vague, because while it expressed the appropriate idea that people would be held up for something of value, it missed the technical aspect, which was critical. "Head-jacking" was closer, since "hijacking" has long since been expanded to include "carjacking" etc., but I was concerned that people might guess it was a software problem like hacking. In the end I settled on "hardware-jacking," to get the greatest specificity about the nature of this misfortune into a single word.

From there we moved into talking about metaphors and similes, which are also great for concise worldbuilding. Any time a character compares one thing to another, you can learn something about what that character is familiar with, and what they perceive to be beautiful, or frightening, etc.

In our world, we very often compare things we see to elements of nature. Perhaps in the world you're working with, people have a similar relationship to nature as we do, but perhaps they do not. Neither Tagaret nor Hub Girl has the same relationship to nature that I do, for very different reasons. Tagaret lives in an underground city where few people have ever experienced wild nature, and most people are afraid of it. Hub Girl lives in a slum beside a big city, and the river that runs through the slum is polluted, so she doesn't get a lot of nature either. This means that neither one is going to compare anything to a growing tree, or to singing birds and babbling brooks. Instead, I have them compare things to what they have experienced in the past, or things that are common to their world. This gives me the opportunity (and can give similar opportunities to you) to reveal things about their past experiences and about what is common in the world. Sometimes you can take a familiar phrase, say, "blind as a bat" and change one element to suggest worldbuilding. What is "blind" in your world? Tagaret might say "blind as a child lost in an adjunct" (adjuncts are the cave systems surrounding the city). A person from Tagaret's world who travels to the surface is actually liable to reverse these comparisons, and compare elements of nature to more familiar things from the city. Hub Girl is urban, so she is far more likely to compare tiny and enormous networks saying that one is a footpath and one a superhighway, rather than saying that one is a spiderweb and one a river system.

At this point, Harry shared an example of this that he had read in Cathrynne Valente's Six Gun Snow White. The story that places Snow White in the wild west, where the name "Snow White" was given to her as an ironic insult because she is of mixed white and American Indian blood. Valente tells the story using a lot of earth, gem, metal, and rough imagery to fit with the wild west setting.

Harry also mentioned that he's working on a story where two ships are in competition to colonize a planet (only one can stay), and where he'll have the people comparing the wild natural state of the planet to the artificiality and sameness of the ships they've been traveling on. This is a similar reversal to the one I use for Tagaret, and for essentially the same reason: familiarity and unfamiliarity, both of which are really important to establish when worldbuilding.

One thing you can do in order to find ideas for expressing world through character is to ask a list of questions about your character and his/her judgments. What scares them, and why? What excites them? What comforts them? What disgusts them, or intrigues them, or confuses them? (We had a lot of great suggestions from our guests in this section, and I'll also point you toward the questions in my post, Designing Character Interviews that Really Matter, because many of these are directly related to worldbuilding).

Remember that people don't talk about things that are completely normal. If they do, that's when you're likely to feel like the information is bogging down the story. People remark on unfamiliarity or contrast, so use new experiences or departures from the norm to help establish what the norm actually is.

You may ask, "How do I go about conveying information to the reader which is not known to the character?" This can be a challenge, but be aware that sometimes people perceive things that they do not really notice, or even if they do notice they may not understand, or be too busy (due to story action) to analyze thoroughly. They may even observe something and actively try not to think about it, as when encountering an activity that is taboo.

For more information on how to include worldbuilding information more smoothly through grammatical means (backgrounding), I'll point you to my article, Hiding Information in Plain Sight.

Thanks to everyone who attended the hangout! Please feel free to add to the comments if you recall things from the hangout that I may have forgotten. Questions are also welcome.

Our next hangout will be tomorrow, Thursday, January 24th at 11am PST. We will be discussing the balance between realism and fantasy in sf/f, or in other words, "How realistic does a created world have to be in order to be plausible?" I hope to see you there!


  1. This post made me think of the first two Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold. The narrator of those two books, Cordelia, is from one planet but moves to another. Because the two planets have such different systems--ecosystems, political systems, social systems, everything--her reactions to all the new things give readers a clear understanding of what both planets are like without beating anybody over the head.

  2. Great advice, Juliette. Using limited POV as filter is always a great countermeasure to info dumps.

    1. Thanks, Veronica! It's not the answer for everyone, but it works well for those who can do it well.